Guest Column

Myanmar, Beyond Balkanization

By Ashley South 6 April 2023

Following the Feb. 1, 2021 coup, Myanmar is in turmoil. The militarized state is not fragile or failing—it has failed. No amount of either fighting or negotiation will put the country back together.

Before the coup, the state had little credibility or legitimacy for many ethnic nationality citizens, who often experienced the Myanmar government and army as violent and predatory invaders of ethnic homelands. Following the coup, the country has no legitimate—or even minimally effective—central government.

A generation of young people from the towns and cities has joined forces with a handful of ethnic armed organizations (EAOs, sometimes referred to as ethnic resistance organizations) to oppose the junta, known as the State Administration Council (SAC). People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) established following the coup have proved extraordinarily resilient. As the conflict drags on, those PDFs aligned with EAOs seem most likely to endure. The struggle will be particularly intense in Sagaing and Magwe regions, where PDFs and People’s Administrative Bodies, some aligned with the National Unity Government (NUG), hold on in the face of Myanmar military onslaughts and horrific abuses.

It seems highly unlikely that the SAC junta will be able to repeat even the limited achievements of the previous SLORC-SPDC regime, by imposing relatively unchallenged military rule over large parts of the country. The Spring Revolution demonstrates extraordinary resilience, and resistance. However, even if reviled junta supremo Min Aung Hlaing were removed, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Myanmar military agrees to quit politics and “return to the barracks” as the EAOs and NUG have demanded, unless a reform movement emerges within the military. Instead, this conflict will likely be protracted.

Attempts to respond pragmatically, based on assumptions that the SAC will eventually prevail and consolidate control, are therefore not well founded. Although countries in the region may be loath to acknowledge it, Myanmar is already caught in a downward spiral. Rather than continuing in denial, policy-makers should accept the realities of post-coup Myanmar: Min Aung Hlaing and his thugs have destroyed an already weak and fragile state. The balkanization of Myanmar is well under way. The challenge now is how to work with this empirical reality, rather than pretending that eventually things will return to normal, under one kind of central government or another.

The new realities are messy—but not without opportunity. Instead of shoring up a failed state, the challenge is to identify and support creative responses to this new situation. Local and regional political structures and actors are emerging from the chaos, while longer-established EAOs have found new relevance and vitality.

These include EAOs in northern Myanmar which enjoy varying but close relations with China. One key question is under what circumstances they will receive assistance from the giant northern neighbor, in order to reinforce already substantial political autonomy. In exchange for patronage from China (guns, roads and bridges, vaccines) the northern EAOs are under pressure not to attack the SAC, and to protect Chinese assets in Myanmar.

Other new actors include criminal syndicates, and those bent on making quick profits by looting the country’s still extensive natural resources. However, many individuals, groups and networks across the country are deeply committed to building a better, fairer Myanmar based on respect, inclusion and a commitment to basic rights.

A new federal Myanmar is emerging—painfully, from the bottom up.

Federalism has long been considered an important tool for resolving Myanmar’s protracted state-society conflicts and achieving self-determination for ethnic nationality nations. Federalism is a tool for self-determination, rather than an end in itself. It has often been discussed in terms of the need to revise or replace the 2008 constitution, usually in a top-down (“blueprint style”) manner. While constitutional change is arguably necessary, federalism can also be seen as an “emergent phenomenon”, developing out of the existing practices of communities and EAOs, civil society organizations (CSOs) and state-based bodies such as the Karenni State Consultative Council.

Before the coup, the challenge in Myanmar was to federalize a constitutionally unified (albeit deeply contested) state, following decades of mostly “low intensity” civil war. Since the latest military takeover, the challenge is to rebuild Myanmar through a new federating process, including important new stakeholders.

These issues are particularly relevant in relation to a crisis which affects our entire planet: climate change, which will further destabilize Myanmar in the near future. Key EAOs and CSOs have globally important roles to play in mitigating and adapting to the challenge of climate change. Taking just one example, the best remaining forests in mainland Southeast Asia are located in Kachin and Karen areas. These are key resources in mitigating climate change through “drawing down” carbon into the soil, as well as sites of incredible biodiversity.

The administration and services delivered by EAOs and affiliated CSOs include natural resource management and disaster response, providing access to justice, and the delivery of impressive health and education services to vulnerable communities. These are the building blocks of a new (emergent), and networked federalism in Myanmar—based on the autonomy and historical sovereignty of ethnic nations and their natural and human resources.

This localization of disaster response is particularly important, given likely reductions in international aid for countries like Myanmar, as climate change and other crises weaken the economic resources and commitment of Western countries—the traditional donors for most aid programs. The challenge is to support resilient “localization” while there is still time.

Myanmar as we have known it may not recover for many decades. The country may be a harbinger for the coming failure of “fragile states” across the world, in the face of escalating crises.

We are moving into a period of worldwide insecurity and suffering, likely characterized by widespread food shortages. Those who are not deeply alarmed by these scenarios are probably not paying attention. Nevertheless, crises bring opportunities. In the case of Myanmar, these include discarding a failed state, and supporting a new type of adaptive—or “emergent”—federalism.

In practical terms, probably the most urgent need is to provide direct financial and technical support to anti-junta EAOs. This should include military equipment, so that EAOs can protect civilians from the SAC’s deadly airstrikes.

Ashley South is an independent analyst, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University, specializing in politics and humanitarian issues in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. His views are his own.